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  • Writer's pictureDaniel Vollaro

Wild Blackberries

When I was a child, July was blackberry season. I lived near a reservoir in rural New Jersey, and I remember walking there with my grandmother when I was five or six years old to harvest them, carrying Tupperware containers lined with paper towels. A thick bramble of blackberry bushes grew like a hedgerow along the shoreline of the cove nearest to our house. These were inaccessible without wading across the cove, but if you walked further along the dirt bike trails that skirted the other shore, there was another thicket. The branches were bent over from an overabundance of the bulbous black fruit, each one about the width of my grandmother's thumb, each clinging to a branch barbed with thorns. We would pick them with great care, one at a time, reaching our hands gingerly into the bush to carefully pluck them with a pincher-like motion of the thumb and forefinger. When we were finished, our containers would be bulging and our hands and lips would be stained with black juice. No one survived the experience without getting bloodied at least once by the needle-sharp thorns.

A few years ago, I discovered a similar thicket of wild blackberry bushes growing along the side of the road about a quarter mile from my house in Marietta, Georgia. They were located on the downslope of a new senior living facility, at the back edge of the property, in a stand of trees behind the parking lot. The bushes were entwined in a messy cluster of greenery that tumbled down the embankment and terminated just a few feet from the edge of the sidewalk. While walking to the nearby Kroger grocery store one day, I saw the blackberries, just ripened, hanging so close that I could reach out and pluck them without even trying.

And of course I did. The desire was irresistible and I gave into it. We humans were hunter-gatherers much longer than we were anything else. So I stood there on the sidewalk, with my back to the road, plucking berries and stuffing them into my mouth.

For the next two years, in June and July, I would sometimes turn right down that street when it made more sense to simply just keep walking straight because I knew that this diversion would take me past the blackberry bushes.

Sometime after last summer ended, the town of Marietta built a retaining wall along this stretch of road. It is gray, the color of sheet metal, about waist high to a fully grown man, still shiny in parts, the way newly poured cement can, when perfectly smooth, reflect the light. At the top is a mostly flat shelf of packed dirt, three or four feet wide and blanketed with gold-colored mulch. Behind this is a new green chain link fence holding back a wild snarl of scrub underbrush. It is as if the town had recently decided to cage everything that is wild and green in this part of the town.

The blackberry bushes are gone now. In fact, now when I walk this way, I can no longer reach out and touch any living thing. Where there was once a kind of gentle estuary joining civilization and nature there is now a wall and a fence.

Someone reading this will yawn and say "so what"? Another will say "retaining walls are necessary to prevent erosion." Still another will say, "keep walking up the hill and you can buy even better blackberries at the grocery store" (the anti-wildness indoctrination runs deep in the American psyche, and it often expresses itself as a cynical sneer). It is true that the blackberries at Kroger are bigger---bigger even than the ones we picked as a child. They come in clear plastic containers about the size of my hand, imported from Mexico and possessing all the flavor that is possible from fruit that was kept artificially "fresh" for many days after it was picked. They are edible, yes. Sweet even. But a blackberry---any berry---is most flavorful the moment it is plucked from the vine.

The fate of these particular blackberry bushes is not, in itself, an environmental catastrophe. Allegheny Blackberries are in no danger of being made extinct by retaining walls anytime soon. I chose to tell this story because it illustrates on a micro scale how our civilization separates humans from the natural world as a matter of course, while simultaneously encouraging us to fear and hate nature. When I told a friend that I had eaten blackberries picked at the side of the road, she crinkled her nose and said, "are you sure they were safe to eat." Her attitude is now normative. Any food that doesn't come sheathed in plastic with a bar code and FDA labeling is automatically suspect, potentially germ bearing or poisonous. America's corporate food producers could not have better engineered a nation of pliant, unquestioning consumers of its products if they tried.

It occurs to me that I never agreed to the compromises that allowed for this retaining wall to supplant those wild blackberry bushes. I was never personally consulted. If the issue was discussed at a zoning board meeting, I was not there (though maybe I should have been). If I asked for it, I could probably obtain the documents that were written to propose and secure construction of that wall, but I am willing to bet that blackberry bushes are never mentioned in them. I was never allowed to vote on the issue, and to my knowledge, there was never a candidate for mayor who was more pro-berry picking than any other. They all seem equally at ease as they pose in a yellow hard hat at the ribbon-cutting ceremony in which another another ten acres of land is denuded of all living things to make way for another strip mall, church, or housing development.

The berry picker is never part of the equation because berry picking was long ago relegated to a form of nostalgic entertainment, an activity you do for fun with your family on a farm where you pay $3.50 a pound for the privilege of wandering around in a field and walking away with a basket full of strawberries, blueberries, or blackberries. You pick berries on a farm for the same reasons you visit a petting zoo or pay $5 for your toddler to ride a pony at the state fair, to savor a small taste of experiences that have been mostly banished from public life. The weekend berry picker wants to be reassured that a connection to the land is possible. For a price, he can have it.

The wild blackberry bush has gone the way of all wildness in suburban landscapes, conquered and defeated and driven into the few remaining strips of "messy" un-landscaped foliage. One of these strips is located directly across the street from the entrance to my neighborhood, a rectangular patch of trees about 200 by 300 feet. There are blackberry bushes surviving in this thicket, and a red fox den. The male fox sometimes crosses the road at night, his feet padding stealthily as he slides through the front gate into the neighborhood, cruising for an easy meal. I saw him during the daytime once, in my backyard, rolling around in a big patch of pine straw. He is a magnificent creature, sleek and lithe, moving with reptilian quickness and fluidity. Someday, his luck will run out and he will be killed crossing the road. Someday my luck will run out and this tiny copse will be mowed down to make way for a new Starbucks or Chic-fil-A.

Red foxes are omnivorous, and they definitely eat blackberries.

So do black bears. Two years ago, a 300-pound black bear wandered out of Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park and found itself in the town park behind my backyard. After provoking audible screams from a few morning speed walkers the park, the bear, nicknamed "Yogi" by the police (because what else would they name him?), was spotted in a few backyards west of the park, in a neighborhood adjacent to the local high school. The Georgia Department of Natural Resources was called in to tranquilize him. They waited until nightfall because they were concerned that the chemical they use would kill the bear if it was administered during the heat of the day. At 10:15 p.m., they tranquilized the bear. The Marietta Police reported that Yogi was then moved “back to its natural habitat" in “an undisclosed location in North Georgia.” Once safely renditioned to a black site somewhere far away, the bear was deemed no longer a threat to anyone.

And so it goes that the descendents of people who once lived bravely and heartily on the frontier are now terrified of a single black bear wandering around sniffing garbage can lids. Isn't civilization grand?


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